The PlayStation Vita, Sony’s new hand-held gaming device, hit the market today. The question on at least some of our minds, though, is whether we really need a standalone gaming device anymore; the way people think about portable gaming has changed a lot in recent years, with the advent of games on sophisticated smart phones and tablets. But this descendant of the PlayStation Portable, with its advanced controls and expansive games, just may just be able to carve out a niche in the market.
The PS Vita ($249 for the Wi-Fi-only version, $299 for 3G plus Wi-Fi) has a 5-inch OLED touch screen, which is perfect for hand-held gaming. The graphics are easily better than those of the Nintendo 3DS, but (despite what you might have heard) they're not quite at the level of the PlayStation 3 console's graphics. The Vita's touch screen is very responsive, and the interface is intuitive and easy to use.
The Vita has both a front- and a rear-facing camera, for taking photos and (more important) for augmented-reality gaming. Its sophisticated controls include dual analog thumb sticks (the first time these have been built onto a hand-held gaming system), a touch panel on the back of the device, and a six-axis motion sensing system, which provides some real versatility in the way you can control the games.
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Innovative controls. The two analog sticks came in very handy for games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, in which you can use the right analog stick to control the in-game camera. But the game also gives you additional control options: For example, when you're climbing ledges, you can use the left analog stick and Face buttons to jump; or you can use the touch screen to “paint” the ledges, and the game's hero, Drake, will follow the path that you lay out for him. You can also tilt the Vita in the direction you want Drake to lean, rather using the analog sticks. And with the rear touch panel, you can slide your fingers in alternating directions to simulate a climbing motion when you want Drake to move up or down a rope. In another Vita game, ModNation Racers: Road Trip, you can build your own tracks using the Vita’s controls. If you want to add hills, you simply push up on the rear touch panel, and to create a pit, you push down on the front touch screen. The Vita provides enough flexibility to allow intuitive uses of the controls. Augmented-reality gaming. Similar to the 3DS, the Vita has augmented-reality games, which can be played with or without the provided AR cards. Without the cards, you can play games that simply make it look as though characters are appearing in your room.
The more impressive use of AR gaming is with the cards. The game Cliff Diving lets you use the cards to create your own diving pool: You place one card on a surface, which when viewed through the camera, becomes a pool of water. After unlocking the custom cliff mode, you can then use a second card and place it on top of a raised object, such as drinking glass, to represent the diving board. You then have Diver Dan jump off of the "diving board" into the "pool of water" while executing tricks. The simple but fun game lets you interact with a video game in a new and compelling way. Just be sure to stay within range of the cards.
Cross-play capability. One feature that really sets the Vita apart from other mobile-gaming devices is cross play, which gives it the ability to communicate with the PlayStation 3. With Cross Platform Game Play, you can play both the PS3 and Vita on the same network—so you can play on the Vita against gamers playing on the PS3. And when you're playing Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, you can use the Vita as a controller for the PlayStation 3, complete with touch screen and panel controls.
You can also pause a game on the PS3 and resume it on the Vita using the Cross Platform Game Save feature. This feature does require you to have the game on both devices, but some of the extra content needs to be only purchased once for both. This is a huge step in the right direction; you really shouldn't have to buy your content twice. But whether it will continue or is just a promotional tool remains to be seen.
Beyond gaming. The Vita also has at least some of the capabilities of smart phones or tablets. You can't make a call on it, but you can keep up with friends on Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. You can also download movies from the PlayStation store and access your Netflix account for streaming videos, and you can listen to music and view photos on the Vita. The Vita also lets you chat with your PlayStation Network friends and features the Near app, which shows you other players nearby along with what games they are playing.
Unfortunately, the Vita is not quite as portable as a smart phone. Though it won’t fit easily into a pocket, it can be carried in a bag or backpack with no problem. I recommend that you pick up a case and screen protector if you plan to carry it around.
The price. The Vita is available as a Wi-Fi only model for $250 or a Wi-Fi-plus-3G model for $300. 3G connectivity is provided by AT&T and costs $15 for 25MB of data or $25 for 2GB of data. (Some launch deals are available; shop around.)
Over 20 games available already. Games can be purchased at a retail store or downloaded from the PlayStation store and kept on a proprietary Vita Memory Card. The games cost anywhere from $25 to $50; the digital versions are slightly cheaper than game cards. Many of the games require the use of the Vita Memory Card, which costs $25 to $100. All these costs can add up quickly, making the Vita an expensive entertainment.
Bottom line. All things considered, the Vita should attract a pretty wide spectrum of players: The terrific graphics, classic controls, and innovative games will appeal to hardcore gamers, and those features along with the responsive touch screen and touch panel offer a lot of appeal to casual and younger gamers—even those who are attached to smart-phone and tablet games and the Nintendo 3DS.
Want to see the device in action? Check out our hands-on video of the PlayStation Vita.